'Not an easy task': GOP scrambles to finalize plans for convention amid COVID-19, venue changes, Trump input

WASHINGTON – The Republican National Convention opens in just two days, but planners have yet to provide a final schedule or other key details about what will take place during the gathering that will culminate in the nomination of President Donald Trump for a second term.

Officials have confirmed the identities of a dozen or so convention speakers, but not when they will be speaking, where they will be, or what they will be talking about.

Convention planners haven’t officially announced that Trump is giving his acceptance speech from the White House, though the president himself has confirmed it.

Even aides to the Senate’s top Republican, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, seemed confused about whether he would have a convention speaking role. McConnell’s re-election campaign said Thursday he would be campaigning in his home state and would not be speaking at the event. Hours later, a campaign source said there had been “a miscommunication” and that the senator would submit taped remarks to be played at the convention.

McConnell’s off-again, on-again appearance at the convention underscores the chaotic nature of the short-term planning for a complex event that has been moved from two cites over a period of two months, all under the shadow of the pandemic, officials said.

“The airplane has been put together in mid-air, and it is much less organized than normal,” said Dan Eberhart, an energy company executive and GOP donor who is familiar with the convention planning.

But the convention is happening, ready or not, concluding a 2½-month scramble that involves constantly changing venues and ever-changing schedules over four nights of programming.

Who’s speaking at the RNC? Here’s what we know so far

A delegate shows off support for Donald Trump during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016. This year's Republican convention, which opens Monday, will be a much smaller affair.A delegate shows off support for Donald Trump during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016. This year's Republican convention, which opens Monday, will be a much smaller affair.
A delegate shows off support for Donald Trump during the third day session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016. This year’s Republican convention, which opens Monday, will be a much smaller affair.

A mostly virtual RNC, with some in-person events and small crowds

There are many reasons for seeming chaos, officials said, including Trump’s insistence on approving most decisions and the egos of people who want prime-time speaking slots.

“You’ve got many senior Republicans who have higher approval ratings than Trump, and so that’s playing into who wants to be seen at the convention and who doesn’t,” Eberhart said.

The event, which opens Monday and closes Thursday night with Trump’s acceptance speech at the White House, will be a far cry from the glitz of conventions past, primarily because of the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. The convention is expected to be a mostly virtual affair, although small crowds are expected at some events.

Convention-type activities began Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Republican National Committee is holding a series of meetings throughout the weekend devoted to rules, the platform and other party business. The RNC meeting on Monday is to nominate Trump for re-election.

The Republican National Committee did not respond to requests for details about convention programming.

Democrats held their four-day convention this week, switching to an entirely virtual gathering after concerns about the coronavirus prompted them to scrap plans for a traditional celebration in Milwaukee. Though there were a few glitches, planners managed to pull off the first-of-its-kind convention without any major technical problems, with Joe Biden accepting his party’s presidential nomination from his hometown in Wilmington, Delaware.

Republicans, who watched closely to see what worked and what didn’t, are expected to sharpen their attacks against Biden at their convention.

“I think we’re going to see a full-out assault on Joe Biden,” Eberhart said. “People that I’ve talked to are very amped up about how anti-Trump the Democratic convention was, and so I think they’re going to tweak some of those speeches to increase the contrast with Joe Biden even more than what they were planning.”

Acceptance speech:Trump will accept party’s nomination for a second term at the White House during Republican convention

Delays, miscommunication in planning

The biggest the difficulty in putting together the convention has been COVID-19 and the dangers posed by the virus that already has killed more than 174,000 Americans and infected more than 5 million, officials said.

The threat of the virus has made it difficult to plan events with any kind of sizable crowds, officials said. Seeking events with event limited crowds has forced planners to drop potential venues that don’t want to be involved because of the fear of COVID-19.

The virus is the reason the Republicans pulled their convention from Charlotte in the first place, a decision that the Republican National Committee made in early June.

The spread of the coronavirus made it hard for the GOP to plan events in their back-up city of Jacksonville, Fla. – should Trump speak in the basketball arena? The minor league baseball stadium? The nearby amphitheater? – and wound up killing the entire project anyway.

When Trump told reporters July 23 he was pulling the plug on Jacksonville, it caught some Republican staff members by surprise. They suddenly had to pack up and start looking for new venues, one month before the start of a convention that normally takes years to plan.

Plans have to be run by Trump, and that has created delays and at times miscommunication.

“The president has got a lot on his plate,” said one Republican familiar with the convention. “The speaker’s list for the Republican convention may fall further down the list.”

Trump freely offers advice on what he wants to see in the convention, officials said. Previous presidents have taken an interest in convention planning, but Trump’s role is unique given his background in television. The star of a TV reality show before entering politics, Trump often envisions events in terms of how they will look on television.

“When it comes to what a television shot looks like, the president is very engaged,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP political strategist. “He cares about what the lighting looks like. What are the backgrounds? Who are the other people who are going to be in the shot? He is very detail oriented on what viewers are going to be seeing and how it is going to be portrayed on a daily basis.”

Donald Trump accepts the GOP nomination for president during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016. This year's convention will be a much smaller affair.Donald Trump accepts the GOP nomination for president during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016. This year's convention will be a much smaller affair.
Donald Trump accepts the GOP nomination for president during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2016. This year’s convention will be a much smaller affair.

During this week’s Democratic convention, after learning that former first lady Michelle Obama had taped her convention speech days before, Trump got out the word that he wanted all live speeches at the GOP convention.

Officials said it’s a lot easier to slot in taped speeches than lives ones – especially with so many officials lobbying hard for the best speaking slot.

That’s a problem endemic to all conventions. Political strategist Rich Galen, once an aide to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, recalled that before the 1996 GOP convention in San Diego, Gingrich agreed to speak in the mid-afternoon to take some of the pressure off planners.

“The convention managers could say, ‘If the speaker doesn’t need a prime time spot, you don’t either,'” Galen said.

More: With no balloon drops, what’s a convention for?

The jockeying for speaker slots probably contributed to the mix-up with McConnell, an official said.

Lobbying for prominent speaker roles has been an especially big problem given the last-minute planning due to the cancellations – the same kinds of problems the Democrats faced right up to their virtual convention.

Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del.Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del.
Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del.

The GOP should draw on lessons from this week’s Democratic National Convention, where speakers like Sen. Kamala Harris accepted her historic nomination as Biden’s running mate to a near empty auditorium, said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who worked for Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns.

The stretch of silence following her remarks was louder than the eruption of applause that would have typically followed.

As much as emphasizing a clear message matters, there’s “zero room for error” on live television when it comes to the technical transition between speakers, Gorman said.

“There’s no choice but success. I think there’s too much at stake,” he said. “The people who are running it are extremely competent and a lot of this was planned in terms of speakers and things, so a lot of it is transition and figuring out how to do it in a new venue.

“That’s certainly not an easy task.”

POTUS vs. POTUS: Barack Obama called out Donald Trump in his DNC speech, and the current president was not happy

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: RNC: Planners scramble to finalize details amid chaos, Trump’s input

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